OAKLAND -- Chris Paul had a hamstring that nagged him. Steph Curry had a team full of Clippers who did the same. Two of the best point guards in the NBA didn't really look like it for most of Thursday night, but sometimes, especially in the postseason, spectacular isn't possible, even for the stars. Sometimes it's about finding a way to succeed even when everything is a grind.
It is a measure of their talent that both point guards did exactly that. Curry, the Warriors' normally lethal marksman, missed his first five three-pointers before he drained a couple -- one of them from about five feet beyond the arc over Clippers forward Blake Griffin -- that briefly gave Golden State hope for a miracle.
Paul, the Clippers' slightly gimpy playmaker, made only five of his 13 shots, but he ultimately made sure that Warrior miracle didn't happen. He strung together enough important plays, including a trey with 2:40 left that took the air out of Oracle Arena and helped seal a 98-96 win that gave the Clippers a 2-1 lead in the first-round Western Conference series.
Paul and Curry were limited by two of the factors that conspire against everyone in the playoffs, injury and focused preparation by the opponent.
"It's the playoffs, nobody's healthy," Paul said in reference to the strained hamstring that kept him from practicing fully in the two days before Game 3. He wasn't his normally explosive self, having set his pace on glide to protect the leg. Even at something less than his best, he was still effective enough to distribute 10 assists, but there were moments when Clippers coach Doc Rivers could see how much the hamstring was bothering him.
"I was going to take him out," Rivers said. "I think it was during the middle of the third. I saw him grab his leg twice. I told our trainer, 'I think that's it.' You could see it. He was laboring. He said, 'I'm good, just trust me. Please trust me.' And he was good. He's just a tough, tough kid."
For Curry, the problem was the same one that has affected him the entire series -- a Clipper defense that has made it Job 1 to keep him from getting enough airspace to go on one of his long-range shooting sprees.
In the postseason, there is time to study a team's top offensive threat and tailor a defense to contain him in a way that the regular season doesn't allow, and Rivers clearly used that time well. He continued to have his team force the ball out of Curry's hands, blitzing him on pick-and-rolls, picking him up early in transition and trapping him whenever possible.
The Clips were so well-prepared for Curry that they have gotten their hands on several of the hook passes that he likes so much.
In the process, the Clippers exposed a Warrior weakness that may doom them, one that may have been a fatal flaw even if center Andrew Bogut weren't sitting out the series with a broken rib. When Curry is kept under control, Golden State searches for another scorer to energize the offense. Sometimes someone emerges to fill that role, like guard Klay Thompson, forward David Lee or guard Andre Iguodala. Sometimes, no one steps forward. But it's always a search, and when a team is searching in late April, it's not a good sign.
The Clippers once again turned Curry into a passer on Thursday, a job he handled well enough to pile up 15 assists.
"I just tried to get the ball to open teammates, and we were able to make some shots." But not enough of them, especially from beyond the arc, where Golden State made only 6-of-31 attempts. The Warriors can't win this series without Curry adding his own points to the passing. In Game 2, a 138-98 Clippers blowout, he didn't have a field goal until 2:45 was left in the first half. He was quiet even longer on Thursday night, getting his first bucket with just 1:46 left before halftime.
But he warmed up late, with ultra-deep threes on consecutive possessions that cut the Clipper lead, which had once been 68-50, to 97-96 with 11 seconds left. From there, it became a duel between the two point guards, each trying to turn a sub-par night into a successful one. Paul made a free throw to give the Clippers a 98-96 lead with 8.6 seconds left, and then it was Curry's turn on stage.
The Warriors went to Curry on the final possession, and Paul, knowing they would, asked to guard him. He did it perfectly, shadowing Curry well enough to stay in his face on his release. There was slight body contact, but the referees held their whistle.
"I'm not looking for an apology from the refs," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said afterwards, a reference to the NBA's admission after Game 1 of a crucial missed call. Said Rivers: "I think Steph just jumped into him to try to draw the foul. I don't think the ref's going to bail anybody out on that play. That's Chris Paul. He always guards the best guy. He doesn't hide."
No, the great ones don't hide, even on nights when their usual skills betray them. Both Curry and Paul proved that on Thursday night, but in the end, Paul had satisfaction while Curry had only regret. You get the feeling that when the series is over, they will feel the same way.